Real ACT Prep Guide, 4th Edition Update: Official ACT Prep Guide | Book Review

Curveball: The ACT finally released the Real ACT Prep Guide, 4th Edition … but they named it the Official ACT Prep Guide. And that’s where the creativity ends. (Quick note: this review applies to the 2016-2017 edition. You can find our review of the Official ACT Prep Guide 2018 edition here!)

Real ACT Prep Guide, 4th Edition

The Real ACT Prep Guide, 4th Edition with a New Name


We’ve been waiting for this book for a LONG time. (See the bottom of this post for our laments on the overdue-ness of this guide.)

Honestly, as someone who likes to consider herself one of the biggest champions of ACT test-takers everywhere, I’m pretty disappointed for the kids. The ACT could have done a much better job of addressing the complaints with the out-of-date real ACT Guide, 3rd Edition that has been around for five years (ancient in standardized-test years), and it fell short.

But let’s start with the good stuff. There are definitely some things the ACT got right with the Official ACT Prep Guide, 2016-2017.

Pros to The Official ACT Prep Guide, 2016-2017

The Official ACT Prep Guide 2016-2017 4th edition

    • I like the very specific lists of concepts and skills that are tested on the ACT in the first chapter. This gets quite detailed, particularly on Math, such as “[students need to know how to] solve equations in the form of x + a = b, where a and b are whole numbers or decimals” or “find where a rational function’s graph has a vertical asymptote” This makes it very easy for students to know specifically what bits of school knowledge they need to brush up on.


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    • I also appreciate that the ACT’s Official Guide truly embraces the test prep mindset, even more than the old guide did. Part 3 is specifically entitled “How to Improve Your Score” and the book does actually give some real, helpful advice to improve your ACT score in all sections: English, Math, Reading, Science, and Writing.


    • There are better answer explanations to the practice test questions. Some could use work, but in general, answer explanations are comprehensive and go beyond just stating the right answer (The College Board could learn a few things here regarding the Official SAT Study Guide). I particularly like the Math incorrect answer explanations. For example, “If you chose A, you may have incorrectly used the radius of the circle instead of its diameter in the formula.” This is real. This is what students do. An explanation like this actually gives you good insight into how the ACT constructs incorrect answer choices by anticipating where students might get tripped up along the way.


    • It has official practice tests that have actually been given to students. You aren’t going to get official ACT questions any place other than from the ACT, and these official tests should always form a core part of your test prep. But my enthusiasm here is tempered. See the first Con below for why.

Cons to The Official ACT Prep Guide, 2016-2017


    • The reason why the old Real ACT Prep Guide, 3rd edition has been such a travesty for the past few years is that it no longer matched the test students saw when they actually went to go take the ACT. In the years since this guide was released, the ACT changed the format of the Science section, added comparison passages on Reading, and introduced an entirely different essay. The Official ACT Prep Guide, 2016-2017 fixes these issues, thankfully. Format-wise the test now matches what students will actually see. However, this is a downgrade from the previous book for a couple reasons. One, as many students (and tutors like myself) have reported: the ACT tests of recent years have gotten more nuanced and complex and indeed a bit harder and trickier. But even though this is a refreshed guide for 2016-2017, the tests are a hodgepodge of old and new material, including material you could access in old ACT prep materials or on the ACT website.


    • And, what’s more, there are only 3 practice tests in this book, not 5 practice tests as there were in the old Real ACT Prep Guide! Come on! Students need more to practice with.


    • There are other oversights as well, such as the fact that the book says it will address in Chapter 1 the proportion of Data Representation, Research Summaries, and Conflicting Viewpoints questions that will appear on the ACT Science test. It never does. This is a big deal, since many students prep with a specific pacing strategy on the hard-to-finish Science section, and the unannounced format change has seriously thrown off students in the past. In addition, the guide has the same practice essay prompt in both in the first practice test and as a prompt to practice with in the Writing chapter of the book.


If you’re studying for the ACT, you should buy this Official Guide. It’s an indispensable part of your ACT test prep. That said, I think that the ACT could have done a much better job with the guide — hopefully it will with next year’s guide!

Video Book Review

Check out our video book review of the The Official ACT Prep Guide below!

See below for our previous thoughts in this post on why a new edition was badly needed for more context on why the new book falls short

Like many students and tutors out there, we think a 4th Edition of The Real ACT Prep Guide (The “Red Book”) is ridiculously overdue.

The 3rd edition (the current edition) was published in 2011, so, yeah… nearly five years ago. The tests in the book are from the 2005-2010 period, and, since this time, the ACT has changed in numerous subtle and not-so-subtle ways.

Here’s what’s not-so-subtly out of date in the 3rd edition:

  • The Writing test entirely changed in September 2015. This means that all of the example essays, scoring guides, and advice in The Real ACT Prep Guide no longer apply.
  • The Reading test has added a comparison passage as one of the four passages to read on the test. There are no examples of comparison passages in the Red Book.

More subtly, but still incredibly important:

  • Most tutors and students agree that the ACT has gotten more complex and harder to finish since around 2010. This means that students who prep with the Red Book are often panicked when they sit for the actual test administration and find it to be harder than the official tests they practiced with.

It’s honestly really a travesty. For a test that is so important to so many students and families, workarounds such as a website disclaimer (on the same page where they are continuing to sell the book) that the Writing advice and examples in the guide are no longer valid really doesn’t cut it.

But there’s hope!

(Sooner rather than later, we hope.)

The ACT expects to release a 4th edition of The Real ACT Prep Guide in 2016, although it’s not clear exactly when. The new guide will not be published by Peterson’s, which published the previous versions of the guide, but likely by the ACT itself (or some other company it employs in that effort).

Here’s what you can do while we wait:

I still recommend that students use the 3rd edition of the Red Book until we have a 4th edition. There’s still nothing quite like questions from the test maker to model the test you will actually see. But you need to supplement this with good practice materials that mimic more recent developments of the test and with the materials the ACT has released online to match the new test. These include:

In addition, look for practice materials that have been created to mimic the newer ACTs. This is our goal at Magoosh — we’ve created our questions and strategy advice with the more recent ACT tests in mind, and we will continue to update them as we see changes in the test.

When we get more information on the release of The Real ACT Prep Guide, 4th Edition, we will be sure to pass it along here!


  • Kristin Fracchia

    Dr. Kristin Fracchia has over fifteen years of expertise in college and graduate school admissions and with a variety of standardized tests, including the ACT, SAT, GRE, GMAT, and LSAT, with several 99% scores. She had a PhD from the University of California, Irvine, an MA degree from The Catholic University, and BA degrees in Secondary Education and English Literature from the University of Maryland, College Park. She was the recipient of the 2013 Excellence in Teaching Award and the Chancellor’s Club Fellowship from the University of California, Irvine. She’s worked as a high school teacher and university professor, as an independent college and graduate school admissions counselor, and as an expert tutor for standardized tests, helping hundreds of students gain acceptance into premier national and international institutions. She now develops accessible and effective edtech products for Magoosh. Her free online content and YouTube videos providing test prep and college admissions advice have received over 6 million views in over 125 countries. Kristin is an advocate for improving access to education: you can check out her TEDx talk on the topic. Follow Kristin on LinkedIn!

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9 Responses to Real ACT Prep Guide, 4th Edition Update: Official ACT Prep Guide | Book Review

  1. Jim Hendrix April 12, 2016 at 5:39 pm #

    But isn’t the fourth edition of the book already published. I understand that it is a reprint, but is that what you were referring to as the third edition? And do you know, by any chance, the day or week when the book will be published in May?

    • Magoosh Expert
      Magoosh Test Prep Expert April 18, 2016 at 12:38 pm #

      The fourth book isn’t out just yet. There doesn’t seem to be an exact publishing date available yet, Jim. Your confusion about the third edition reprint is understandable. There really is only one third edition, in terms of content. But the reprint of the third has a very different-looking cover. Beneath he cover, they’re the exact same book tough. The real updates will be coming in the fourth edition, sometime in May.

  2. Khoa May 2, 2016 at 7:23 am #

    so the 2016-2017 edition above is the 4th editon ???

    • Magoosh Expert
      Magoosh Test Prep Expert May 9, 2016 at 2:15 am #

      Hi there 🙂

      Yes, the 2016-2017 is technically the 4th edition of the ACT Official Guide. That said, you should know that the book is officially called The Official ACT Prep Guide, 2016 – 2017, and you probably won’t see it referred to as the 4th edition.

      Hope that helps 🙂

  3. Kim Germano May 18, 2016 at 5:21 am #

    The science section changed from seven sections to six but has the same number of problems. The math has a reduction in trig questions but an increase in word problems. Also, the English/grammar section has more comprehension problems.

    • Magoosh Expert
      Magoosh Test Prep Expert May 18, 2016 at 8:47 am #

      Thanks for sharing this information, Kim! We (and I’m sure our students) appreciate it 🙂

    • Josh T May 23, 2016 at 12:45 pm #

      Kim Germano’s statement that the ACT science section changed from seven to six passages is not entirely correct. The ACT used to always feature seven science passages and 40 total questions. However, since about 2013, ACT science sections occasionally contain only six passages, thought always still contain 40 total questions. When there are six passages instead of seven, each passages has one or two more questions than that passage type normally would have. Nonetheless, the vast majority of ACT science sections still contain seven passages, not six.

  4. Kim Germano January 3, 2017 at 7:17 am #

    Since the ACT test has been revised, I have not seen one released test with 7 sections in it. In the new prep book The Real ACT, published by ACT,there are only 6 sections. In the prep packet ACT releases to schools, there is only 6 sections in science. I prep hundreds of students each year and feel it is essential that they have correct information and the current format of the test.

  5. Likhitha October 26, 2017 at 9:53 pm #

    Am I the only one who feels that the Math Section of the Official Guide’s Practice Tests have become harder?! I mean, they now include stuff like Random Variables, Probability Distributions, Vector Algebra and other miscellaneous topics. It’s definitely harder than what I’ve seen in the tests that I took a few months ago.

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